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Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 2 (Comedy Songs)

Comedy songs can serve any of the usual functions in musical theater: helping to give insight into a character; giving insight into the way the character thinks; moving the plot forward; and so on. They do so in a straight forward way, by making us laugh. But as the old actors’ saying goes, “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” How do you make a song funny?

Comedy is even more ephemeral than music. What is funny to some will not be to others, and what is funny at one point in time may not hold up over the years (or even less depending on the topicality of the jokes). Layer that over the idea of song structure and you have a potential mess on your hands. That said, writing a good comedic song can be done. Here are some of the basics first:

  • Tempo: Comedy songs can be any tempo, from a slow ballad to a fast rhythm number. The music itself is not the defining element.
  • Character versus Situation versus Jokes: As Allen Cohen and I write in Writing Musical Theater, the good comedy songs tend to be “based usually on character, occasionally on situation, but almost never on jokes.” Which isn’t to say there can’t be jokes, but that focus shouldn’t be on them.
  • Comedic structure: One thing Allen and I never covered in the book is how the comedy in a comedic song can be structured. I’ve found that comedic songs tend to fall into two types: (1) songs that use multiple jokes, each with a bigger punchline, and (2) songs with one joke, with the punchline at the end. Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls is an example of the former, while Chrysanthemum Tea from Pacific Overtures is a clear example of the latter.
  • Principle of Opposition: Allen and I talk about the principle of opposition, in this case the idea that something can funny because the character is in an unpleasant situation or sad moods (Adelaide’s Lament again). It can take other forms too, such as a character who is in denial about his or her situation (The Company Way from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, or I’m Not at all in Love from The Pajama Game).

One of my favorite comedic moments — well, favorite TWO comedic moments — occurs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The male and female ingenues, Philia and Hero, sing the duet Lovely. The song is not hah-hah funny but “kinda cute” funny. Hero tells Philia that she’s lovely, and she freely admits that she may be near-stupid and talented but “lovely is what I do.” Okay then, a nice, cute, whimsical moment. But then…. In Act 2 there is a (rare for Sondheim) reprise of the song, this time sung by…Pseudolus and Hysterium, with the latter singing Philia’s lines. From what I recall no lyrics have been changed, only who sings them and the immediate context, and the results are pretty much fall-down laughing in the audience. If nothing else the reprise is an epitome of the principle of opposition at work.

I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Songs don’t have to be one type or another; there can be overlaps. Do You Love Me? from A Fiddler on the Roof is a case in point. The song is funny to be sure, but it also functions as a charm song, and it’s a ballad to boot.

By the way, sometimes an otherwise non-comedic songs becomes funny in a new context: Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (originally from Naughty Marietta) takes on a whole new meaning in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (both in the original non-musical film and the later musical theater version). Ditto the use of Irving Berlin’s  Puttin’ on the Ritz in the same new context.

So, just how do you write a comedy song? First and foremost, find the funny — especially in the character(s), in the situation he or she is in, and in the character’s reaction to it. Don’t go for “joke” jokes if you can help it, and if you can’t help it, try to save it for the big finish.

Last comment: In our book Allen and I consider Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Kiss Me, Kate to be a comedy. Nowadays I’m not so sure. I think it’s far more of a charm song, albeit one that comes extremely late in the show AND for relatively minor characters at that. And yes, it has jokes, but they’re of the bad-vaudeville type with words purposefullly mangled to make rhymes for the most part. I find the song to be cute but not much more, and I question the need for it in the show, but whom am I to argue with Cole Porter?


Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 1 (Charm Songs)

Balance is ultimately what can make or break a musical. There is the balance of comedy and drama, the balance of action and inaction, the balance of moving a plot forward and lingering on a moment, the balance between giving the audience too much information and not enough, and more. There should be balance in the music too. A show consisting of just ballads, or just songs for one type of voice is possible but one of the most difficult things to pull off successfully. Even when a limitation is imposed intentionally, such as Sondheim’s use of triple meter throughout A Little Night Music, there is a substantial amount of variety of styles and uses within triple meters. In general though musical theater composers rely on certain types of songs to help tell the story, clue us in about a character, set the time/place/tone of the show, or just plain entertain us. Below are some song types. Keep in mind that there are no lines of demarcation among them, and that a song can be a combination of them.

The most prevalent type of song in a musical is the ballad. Ballads use slow to medium tempos, and usually focus on an emotional point (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady, for example). The second most prevalent type of song is the ballad’s musical opposite in many ways, the rhythm number. Rhythm numbers are what their name suggest, songs that move, that have a quicker pulse than ballads. They range in tempo from medium to fast (the title song from Oklahoma! is a rhythm number). A comedy song is another self-explanatory song; it’s supposed to be funny. Comedy songs can be at any tempo. (“Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls is a standard example.) A list song is, as you can guess, made up of a list; it can be done at any tempo and in any style. (“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music is a list song.) A musical scene is not a whole song, but a sort of stream-of-consciousness that musically follows the action or a character’s thought processes; “Soliloquy” from Carousel is a musical scene.

Another type of song, the name of which was coined by Lehman Engel, is the charm song. In Writing Musical Theater, Allen Cohen and I wrote that a charm song “makes the character singing come across as charming.” More on that in a moment. We also wrote that a charm song is almost always in medium tempo, and while that is generally true I’ve come to think that it can be created on either side of moderate tempo and still be quite effective. Most often a charm song is sung by one person, but it can be done by two.

What does it mean, to have a character come across as “charming”? In the usual way it means that the character gives us some insight into his or her basic character. A charm song allows us to find something in the character to which we find a connection, even if we have absolutely nothing in common. “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story and, especially, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady are all charm songs. Who hasn’t ever felt like they could conquer the world (not literally of course) “if only” they had something they think they lack? Or wished for some simple creature comforts to make life more bearable?

Over the years I’ve come to realize that there seems to be another type of charm song possible, in which the singer charms another character while we the audience remain aware that he or she is not at all charming. The thing is, to date I have not found any songs in a show that would qualify as such. (Please: If you know of one, post it here.)

Who usually gets a charm song? Most of the time it’s the lead character or at least an important secondary character. Eliza Doolittle gets one, because we need to be charmed by her, but Higgins does not get a charm song. We are not supposed to find him charming, and we don’t — even when he finally sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Where/when do charm songs come up in a show? Theoretically at any point in the show, but usually not too long after we are introduced to the character. That’s why a lot of charm songs can be found in the first act of a show (or the first part of a one-act).

Earlier I said that there are no lines of demarcation when it comes to types of songs. One great example of that is “Do You Love Me?” from A Fiddler on the Roof. This is a ballad (it has a slow tempo, and it is very emotional), but it’s also a comedy song (“Do you love me?” “Do I WHAT?”) and it is charm song. The song also functions to charm us about Tevye, but also about Golde, and Tevye and Golde as a couple.

More about song types in a later posting.

Getting Things “Right”.

I don’t watch a lot of t.v.; in fact our actual television set is hardly ever plugged in, let alone watched. I admit to watching some shows streamed on the internet though, and it’s in doing this I’ve noticed something over the years. When it comes to showing musicians, especially composers and conductors, the folks who make movies and television shows never get it quite right.

Case in point: Watching an old episode of “The Mentalist” with a murder of the concertmistress of an orchestra, I noticed the following without even trying:

  1. Nowhere near enough performers to cover the parts in the score. There are maybe 40 people shown “playing” (another sticking point), when there should be more winds and brass.
  2. What the heck is the “conductor” doing? He looks intense (I keep waiting for off-screen screams of “It’s Leopold!”) and makes some very dramatic hand motions, but they have no relation to the music we hear or even to any music at all.
  3. The way the conductor sees fit to move performers from a secondary position to first chair is plainly ridiculous in this day and age of unionized orchestras. Unless it’s a community orchestra, in which case a whole ‘nother set of issues come up. This is supposed to be a professional group, so I wonder where the union rep was.
  4. Last but not least is the major plot point — spoiler alert — that the nebbishy oboist (hmm, a little stereotyping?) is the killer. What?

And this one episode of this one show is only an example. Time and again we see “composers” creating “masterworks” that sound like somebody’s idea of what a modern work should sound like, but for only a minute or so, and then full of clichés — and they do so after working feverishly under the curse of “inspiration.” Or watching a string quartet “play” without a clue as to how what they do relates to “making” the music (ST:TNG, you know who you are).

Surprisingly, one t.v. show gets it right, and for the right reasons. The Big Bang Theory is a comedy about nerdy scientists (no stereotypes there, eh?), but every so often we see a musical side of the characters/actors. Two play piano (and sing), one plays cello pretty well. That the characters do this comes from the actors being able to do so, so it always seems natural.

Directors, please: If you want to have your actors play musicians, have them learn enough to do it right.

Rant over.

Composing, Chugging Along

“Life seems to interrupt important stuff with even more important stuff.” That’s just my way of paraphrasing John Lennon (“Life is what happens while you’re making plans”), but you get the idea.  Still, I’m managing to get composing and arranging done, even if it’s not as quickly and/or efficiently as I would like.

Cinematic Escapades: That’s the title of a new work for string orchestra with percussion (timpani/bells, snare drum/suspended cymbal) that was commissioned by the Linn-Mar HS Orchestra. Three movements played without pause. I’m looking forward to meeting the students and guest conducting the orchestra next month (May). I like to think the piece is fun, something reflected in the subtitles: 1. Adventure on the High Sea; 2. Extraterrestrial Experience; and 3. The Runaway Train Incident.

* Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pigeon: If a piece of music could itself experience emotions this song cycle for soprano, string quartet, and piano would feel very put upon, having been neglected (due to tinnitus and life issues, and then to finish Cinematic Escapades) and restarted several times (depending on the movement). BUT… I’m back on track. I’m well into the ninth song (of 13 of course) and hope to finish it by the beginning of June or earlier. Then I have to edit it, generate and edit the parts, and give it all to the very patient soprano who commissioned it in the first place.

* Odds and ends:

  • Christmas music for (solo) harp: I’m probably one of the few composers, other than harpist/composers, who actually likes to write for the instrument. In moments when i can’t concentrate on anything heavy but want to do something musical I write another arrangement of  Christmas tunes for harp. As to why, well, because there aren’t (m)any very musical collections of that music for harp alone, because spring is a great time to write something for Christmas if you want to have it ready in time for performance and/or publication and, last but not least, it sort of “primes the pump” of musical ideas that spill over into my more serious efforts. Arranging is to me, after all, composing with someone else’s ideas.
  • Preparing some of my existing works for publication: Finally got Concerto Grosso for string orchestra and Variations on a Neapolitan Theme for concert band ready for publication. The former is something I wrote back in the mid-1980s and has had a surprising number of performances at every level from youth orchestra (the level for which it was written) all the way up to and including professional orchestras (notably the Ploiesti Symphony in Romania). The Variations is a more recent work (2011) that had neat beginnings in being commissioned and premiered by the US Naval Forces Europe Band and first performed at the Naples Conservatory in Italy. Since then the US Navy Band Northeast, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Concert Band, and the Ridgewood (NJ) Concert Band have performed it to good response, so I’m hopeful.
  • Once I finish the Pigeon cycle, onto the next commissions: (1) Cello and piano work for Delta Omicron Foundation, and (2) a setting for baritone singer and concert band for the Kaplan Commissioning Project at St. Mary’s University (Winona, MN).


Back to Composing, Tinnitus and All

I was planning on writing about what it means to be a composer these days, specifically what it means to be someone who makes a living as a composer. (Short version: You usually can’t.) But I realized that for me at least composing is not just a job or even a career; it’s an imperative. A biological function if you will. Allow me to explain.

The last time I posted here was in July. A lot has happened since, mostly non-music issues. What didn’t happen from then until recently — actually from January until recently — has been composing. Not a note. Nada. Niente. Zilch. Bupkis. Between the now ever-present tinnitus and the stress of the other issues, I simply couldn’t write anything new, and not for lack of trying either. Sure, I was able to fix some arrangements I had already written; I was  able to concentrate enough to do that work justice. But something new? Nope. And because G*d has a sense of humor I happen to have not one but four commissions sitting on my desk awaiting completion. No pressure, right?

But something kicked in a few weeks ago. One of the most stressful non-music issues has begun to resolve itself in a very positive way. (My apologies to those who do not know the situation but I will not offer personal information here.) Coincidentally the tinnitus, while by no means gone (I wish!), has lessened in intensity slightly overall, just enough for me to be able to concentrate. I found myself not only with a desire to write music again but with ideas. I tested the metaphorical waters with a short, simple piece for string orchestra (based on a blues progression). I liked the result and asked a conductor friend to play through it with his student ensemble to make sure it works. He kindly agreed and afterward asked if his group could premiere it. Of course I said yes. (They are performing it tonight in fact, as I write this.)

Then I took a look at the first of the four commissions to write. Officially it’s overdue but the commissioning party is understanding. We agreed to postpone the due date. I played through what I had managed to squeeze out of my brain over the last six months, which wasn’t much, and declared it, well, scrap. But now I had a better sense of what I wanted/needed to write for it and started over completely. I’m already more than 20% into it and hope to be done by the end of January, just in time to write the second commissioned work on schedule.

In the meantime an idea for another work unconnected to a commission came unbidden; a concert march based on the American folk tune “Oh My Darling Clementine.” Yes, the original tune is a sort of waltz, but with slight adjustment works well in duple meter and is still recognizable as OMDC. In about two days I was able to write a two-line (piano-style) score, and when I have the time — that is, when I’ve finished at least the first two commissions — I will orchestrate the march for concert band.

I feel like I’m “back.” It’s like my being, both body and soul, had been on hold or in the healing process. Call it what you will, the results were the same; I couldn’t compose. I couldn’t arrange. It was worse than writer’s block (and I had a year-long bout of that some 30 years ago, which is another story). There was…nothing. And now it’s as if a flood gate is opening, ever so slowly but opening nevertheless. And it feels good.

Between that and the increasingly good news on the non-music front, this is a good ending to a basically bad year. That said, I wish all who read this a wonderful holiday season — happy belated Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, have a terrific Kwanzaa, and a lovely solstice — and may your best day of 2013 be the worst day of 2014. Good health and happiness to all.

Composing with Noise in My Ear

I’ve had ear trouble since I was 14 years old and had an accident that left my right ear with a damaged cochlea and no mid-range. I got used to that over the years, automatically turning my head to hear what someone was saying if they were on my “wrong” side. Hearing music hasn’t been a problem though, because I can still hear lows and very highs; in a musical context my brain fills in the gap. And then 2013 started.

Back in January I was on my way to a recording session in the Cleveland area, having an uneventful flight. As we landed the air pressure in the cabin changed somewhat drastically, and my ears began to hurt. By the time we landed I was experiencing a sound — specifically tinnitus, akin to hearing a noisy steam radiator going full blast — and it hasn’t stopped since. I’ve come to measure it in musical dynamic terms — what else? — from ppp to fff and everything in between. It has only gone completely silent a couple of times, and even then for an hour at most. For the first few months it would keep me from falling asleep and, quite often, it would wake me in the middle of the night because it was too loud.

Doctors don’t know what starts tinnitus or how to stop (cure) it; the best they can do so far is help mask it. Essentially, hearing loss (in my case in my good ear, in the uppermost register) causes the brain to try making up the difference by sending a feedback loop to the auditory nerve. The result is that I experience a “real” sound — an aural hallucination (there’s got to be a better word or term than that) — that just won’t turn off.

I now know that a lot of musicians I know personally have forms of tinnitus (specific pitches or the “white noise” effect I have), and I empathize with them. But the folks I truly feel for — because it affects me the same exact way — are the composers (and that includes jazz musicians who compose on the spot). How the heck do you compose when you have a constant sound in your ear?

It has taken a little more than six months, but I’ve begun composing again, partly out of necessity because I have a couple of commissions sitting on my desk with deadlines, but mostly because I feel like I can work around the tinnitus. The small upside is that it is noise and not specific pitches. I’ve read that Smetana, whose own tinnitus took the form of a particular high note, wound up incorporating it into some of his music.

It makes composing even more difficult, because I have to take more breaks or go a day or two without putting pencil to paper (or computer keyboard to whatever), but at least I’m doing it. I have no idea if or how this will affect the music I write. We’ll see.


“How to Write a Symphony” ???

“How to Write a Symphony” ???

I suppose a handy guide as to how a symphony is written could be useful, but this article is really exasperating. I’ll take it point by point:

  1. “Before you consider this, you must know a lot of music theory, harmony or even counterpoint for the structure and analysis of music. And you must know how to transpose.” In a couple of words, well, duh! There’s a reason why Brahms waited so long before he felt confident enough to write his first symphony. Writing any sort of large-scale work is a massive undertaking, and no matter how talented you are, no matter how great your sense of what makes music tick, it just isn’t going to work unless you have certain knowledge and practical experience under your belt.
  2. “Be inspired. Take some time, relax, bring some sheet music with you out in nature and get inspired…. Try to make your music connect to people on an emotional level. Use a piano to get these pitches down if you have to.” I’ve said this before, but if I (or any other composer for that matter) really had to wait for inspiration to strike no music would ever get written. Better would be to work until you come up with something that sounds inspired.
  3. You’re going to need a lot of sheet music or a music-writing software….. Set up your orchestration like the example from Beethoven’s 5th. The base of the symphony is really the orchestra, light percussion section, and winds. Unless you’re writing heavy music like Mahler, you shouldn’t need too many winds and strings. It’s all up to you on how you want your sound to be.” Not a lot of “sheet music” — can’t the writer even use the proper terminology? — but rather manuscript paper. And pencils. And erasers, BIG erasers or LOTS of erasers (or both). The music notation software — again with the incorrect terminology! — is a very useful tool, sure, but it tends to 1) give a false sense of everything working when it might not in real life, and 2) limits you to what it can do, not what you can compose.
  4. After your instrumentation is selected, refer back to your “themes” you came up with. Expand these themes; put them in the middle of a phrase, and think of how you will introduce them, and how you will digress from the melody. Which one would sound best near the beginning of the piece? Which one would sound best at the middle as the climax? Which one would be the best to end with? Slowly add onto these themes and interlink them. Make sure to stay in the boundaries, watching for errors like parallel fifths and octaves or bad skips in the chord progressions, as well as watching for cadences that don’t really make sense. That is of course unless you really feel you want some of these. Many composers throughout history have sought out theoretical guidelines but if you encounter an oppurtunity to do something which breaks these rules but really feels right to you in the context of the piece, you might want to leave it in.” (Must. Stop. Brain. From. Hurting.) For every thing right in this bit there are three dubious/wrong things. How about examining existing symphonies, learning how they are structured, learning what types of themes or other musical ideas actually fit the instruments for which you’re writing? Break the “rules” (make that “traditions”) to be sure, but learn what they are first.
  5. Eventually you will start to have a number of different themes and variations going on.” Uh, okay. But without training or experience how will one know when something is a variation on an idea or a brand new idea? And maybe coming up with all the ideas at once is not always the best way to work. What happens if the ideas have nothing in common? Or too much in common? Or there are one or two good ideas and the rest is shlock?
  6. “Eventually each theme will become a decently long movement.” Any comment on structure here? Anything? Hello, is anyone there?
  7. The creative music process may take a while, but by this step you will have your first draft of an entire symphony, so to speak.” I love that “so to speak” part. “Take it to a local group you know closely, or a high school orchestra (depending on the difficulty of the work) and ask them to try it out. Listen to them rehearse it. Is it how you wanted it to sound? Make sure you have a copy of the score to make any on-site edits you decide to make after hearing the instruments in real time.” I think someone forgot a step or three here, like proofreading the score to make sure the harmonies works, that the writing is idiomatic and within the ranges and other technical abilities of the individual instruments, and then extracting the individual parts!
  8. “Go back to your music mess (by now I’m sure if you’re gotten this far your music room will look like Beethoven’s house, ha ha) and make a second draft with your edits. Repeat the above step of the rehearsal process until you are satisfied with your symphony.” I would say make a second draft BEFORE going to an ensemble with score and parts in hand — if at all.
  9. “Take it to a music publisher, like G. Schirmer, Hal Leonard, ect. You can google the Music Publisher’s Association and find your publishing needs there.” Yeah, because somewhere out there is a music publisher who wants to spend several thousand dollars to prepare a full set of score and parts for publication (which is not the same as what you’ve handed the Joe Schmoe Orchestra), advertising, warehouse space, and more on a generally-unheard work by a complete unknown composer without a track record of any sort. Especially the big-gun publishers like Schirmer and Hal Leonard, which are essentially the same thing these days (Hal Leonard has all print rights to Schirmer’s catalog).
  10. “After the publishing process, voila! You’re done. Now go spread your music and enjoy your masterpiece.” That sound you hear is my head alternating between shaking side to side and banging on my computer keyboard. Folks, what it comes down to is: This “You can do this too, and it’s easy!” approach has little if any basis in reality.

Is the writer correct in any of this? Surprisingly, yes:

  1. You must know a lot of music theory, harmony AND counterpoint, as well as the structure and analysis of music, instrumentation AND orchestration to write a symphony. The genre is just too big, too complex, to be written without more than a fair amount of knowledge of all of these.
  2. You should know other symphonies, and not just one or two by a single composer or from a single time period. Well, the writer didn’t say that, but I am and sticking to it.
  3. You are going to need a lot of manuscript paper, pencils, and erasers. But if you use a music notation program, save each new incarnation as a different file (like “symph 1a”, “symph 1b, etc. for the first draft of the first movement, the second draft of the first movement, and so on). You’ll want this for several reasons, but mostly because invariably you’ll need something that came up in an earlier version.
  4. This is going to take a while, and several drafts. Unless you’re Mozart, which is highly unlikely.
  5. Get the music played — by anyone. This is the hardest part, but if you can get an orchestra, or just a small group of representative musicians (string quartet? wind quintet? both?) to read things down, you will learn: What works musically; what doesn’t work musically; what works well for the individual instruments and in combination; and what doesn’t work technically. And don’t worry if it sounds like, well, crap. You will learn from it at the very least.

Additional points:

  1. Try to compose with the sound of the orchestra in mind. Writing a theme and then assigning it to instruments can work but your music will sound better if you can write the music as if those instruments are playing it in the first place.
  2. My snarky comments aside, publishers are not waiting for you to drop the next Big American Symphony on their desks so they can publish it. There has to be a compelling reason to publish a new work — 1) it will make money, 2) it’s an important work (as judged by others, not you), 3) it will make money, 4) you are judged (by others) to be an important composer, or 3) it will make money. See a trend there? Symphonies and other large-scale works are the least likely pieces of music to be published these days.
  3. With the previous comment in mind, consider writing large-scale works for smaller forces — sonatas instead of symphonies. Writing for one or two or even four instruments has more of a chance to be performed (and therefore published) than a full-out symphony.
  4. Or you could go the self-publishing route, but do your homework on what that entails first. Some aspects are easy enough, but others are formidable.

Forewarned is forearmed.